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Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

Written by maria_rn, sshowalter, Gary Wu.

The term arthritis refers to more than a hundred conditions that cause pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. Many misconceptions surround arthritis, one of which is the common notion that it's a disorder that only strike the elderly. But the truth is, joint disorders can affect anyone, even children are not spared from these problems. In the US, there are nearly 300,000 children suffering from arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease which mainly attacks the joints, but may also affect other tissues and organs. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent damage to the joints. Read more about joints and surrounding structures.

In autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, the cells fail to recognize the difference between the body's own healthy cells and potentially harmful stimuli such as disease-causing microorganisms. Inflammation is the body's natural response to what it perceives as threat. The body's immune system triggers inflammation to fight harmful stimuli and to allow affected tissues to heal. Once the body is able to ward off harmful invaders such as bacteria or viruses, inflammation naturally goes away. However, in rheumatoid arthritis, the inflammation stays and contributes to the problem. Instead of protecting the body, the immune system releases substances that can damage the body's healthy tissues, causing deformities, pain, and a limited range of motion.

It has been estimated that rheumatoid arthritis is responsible for 250,000 hospitalizations and 9 million physician visits each year. This chronic disorder has a significant impact on work and productivity. If left untreated, people with rheumatoid arthritis will be at risk of disability within early years of diagnosis.

In rheumatoid arthritis, it is important to initiate aggressive therapy on the early course of the disease in order to modify its progression. Understanding the symptoms and characteristics of rheumatoid arthritis can hep you to maintain an active lifestyle and prevent permanent complications.

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American College of Rheumatology Subcommittee on Rheumatoid Arthritis Guidelines. Guidelines for the management of rheumatoid arthritis: 2002 update. Arthritis Rheum. 2002;46:328–46.

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